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"I've learned that you shouldn't go through life with a catcher's mitt on both hands. You need to be able to throw something back." ~Maya Angelou
Less than 24 hours after the Big 12 Conference's third leading tackler led Nebraska with five solo stops, five assists, two sacks and a pass broken up in a 20-3 win over Kansas, Lavonte David was leading the Huskers again, signing posters, shirts, footballs and even a fishing pole at the first-ever Husker Heroes Outreach Event at NU's Hawks Athletic Indoor Championship Center.
"Man, this is so much fun, making everybody happy," said David, Nebraska's first-year linebacker who is completing a Life Skills class that has reinforced something he already knew - when you give of yourself, you get a lot more back in return.
"Everybody I met tonight came up with a big smile," David said. "There's nothing like a great smile. It gives you chills when you make people smile. There's nothing more rewarding than that."
Indeed. After watching 90 minutes of non-stop action Sunday night between 190 Nebraska student-athletes and 200 individuals with disabilities, Keith Zimmer reached a conclusion.
"When you see student-athletes and individuals with special needs interact, you realize how much lives can be touched both ways," Zimmer said. "It's amazing what leadership, caring and the practical application of volunteerism can produce. Tonight, I think we all saw the true power of red."
Nebraska's Associate Athletic Director for Life Skills, Zimmer admitted he wondered how the Athletic Department's 2010 Life Skills class was going to pull off the enormity of Husker Heroes when assistant Jackie Wallgren approached him about joining forces with seven community organizations to host and produce the event.
"So shines a good deed in a weary world ..." From the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
"We had 200 individuals with special needs and 500 of their family members with them tonight," Zimmer said. "It took nearly 200 student-athletes to make this a powerful experience, but I think everyone could sense the impact. There's no doubt in my mind that the student-athletes got every bit as much out of this event as the individuals they were meeting and interacting with."
Donovan Vestal can attest to that. "I love helping little kids. When they get a big smile on their face, it makes me happy, too," said the injured freshman defensive end from Arlington, Texas. "I can't get enough of those smiles. I have a six-year-old brother with Down syndrome. I've always known that you treat others the way you want to be treated, and I've seen how smiles can change a life. My mom brought me up to be a giving, generous person. I've been volunteering at the YMCA since I can remember. You gotta give back. It's the right thing to do."
Erin Hannon is a Husker student-athlete who can relate to the importance of giving back from a unique perspective. Two years ago, the Nebraska track and field star was involved in a life-threatening traffic accident in Colorado. She ended up in intensive care, required major rehabilitation and spent three months in a wheelchair with various disabilities.
"No matter what joy an athlete gets from winning or performing, nothing compares to the genuine joy you get from helping others, especially when you've been on both sides and can relate to what it's like to be disabled yourself," Hannon said as she helped with a basketball event for those with special needs.
"I feel I've benefited so much from being a student-athlete," Hannon said. "So any time I can give back, I always do. Something like this is just so rewarding deep down. There's nothing like seeing a smile on a face. A kind word can go a long way. When you're where I was, you learn how others look at life and how important it is to stay positive. I see myself staying involved with events like this for the rest of my life."
"We can do no great things, only small things with great love." ~Mother Teresa
Sunday night's event brought together the Athletic Department, the Autism Family Network, the Arc of Lincoln, the Autism Society of Nebraska, the Early Development Network, Dreams Unlimited, Down Syndrome Advocacy Foundation of Nebraska and United Cerebral Palsy of Nebraska.
Caroline Fehlhafer of Seward, Neb., felt the love of Nebraska student-athletes. So did her 7-year-old son Grant, a happy Husker Hero participant with Down syndrome. "This whole event is just absolutely amazing," Fehlhafer said, "not just for Grant, but for Autumn, his older sister. She's the one who joined the Little Breakers last December and convinced us to buy women's season basketball tickets. We see an event like this as a perk for the whole family. To us, this just brings us closer to Nebraska's athletic family. It means a lot to us to know how much these athletes care."
Arnie Christensen of Lincoln felt the same way as he took in the games and the action with Jason, his 13-year-old son with autism. "He just loves the open space and a chance to see all the people," Arnie said. "Look at him. He's an active guy and is excited about getting his picture taken with the Dance Team. He's funny. He loves it. As a parent, it's important to see everyone else's challenges. It helps you understand how much more tolerant people are today than they were when we were younger. This event is not a small thing. It's a great thing."
And not just for kids with disabilities. "We have a children's charity that helps recycle fish, so my family was invited to attend this event," said Arron Slater, a disabled veteran and Lincoln angler who brought a custom-made rod Sunday night for 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers and others to sign.
"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better." ~Dr. Seuss
Ross and Emily Faubel of Lincoln wore the same smiles as the children they brought with them, including Johnathon, a 9-year-old with emotional problems. They adopted him five years ago and are in the process of adopting Jabari, a 2-year-old who was born with herpes and has cerebral palsy.
"To me, this event tonight is just a portrait of Nebraska athletics," Ross said. "This just proves the leadership of Tom Osborne and his staff and shows the character of the program. We all know the emphasis Coach Osborne puts on life skills, how much he cares about people, and how he always seems to want to help others."
Jenn and Mike Miller and Gabe, their 7-year-old son with autism, made the trip to Lincoln from Bellevue. "This is such a wonderful event for kids to be able to see and meet the athletes they look up to," Jenn said.
"There are so many activities, and they're all so well planned and supervised," her husband said. "You can tell people know what's best for the kids. There's no pressure ... just shiny, happy faces in a very positive, upbeat atmosphere. It makes everyone happy to be here and really shows that these athletes have huge hearts for everybody they come into contact with."
The Millers were equally impressed with the care and understanding the athletes showed for their 3-year-old son who does not have a disability. "Some of the soccer players took the time to show him how to correctly kick a soccer ball," Jenn said. "They were so patient, so kind, so caring and they made him feel so special."
Laura and Jeremy Baum felt the same way bringing 4-year-old Grace and 5-month-old Claire, their beautiful baby with Down syndrome, from LaVista, Neb. "All of these athletes here tonight were so interested and so engaged," Jeremy said. "It's just great to see how they look at life. You don't have to be here long to see they're not faking their way through this. They have a real, genuine interest."
"Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth." ~Muhammed Ali
The Baums and others see Nebraska life skills as life lessons for everyone, and Alex Levin, a junior Husker baseball pitcher who transferred to Nebraska from Southern Cal, buys wholeheartedly into NU's heavy emphasis on service to others.
"I had shoulder surgery and came to Nebraska for a visit and just fell in love with the place, so I decided to walk on," said Levin, a Portland, Ore., native who was the head of the softball toss for Husker Heroes.
Part of Levin's love affair with Lincoln was the values he found and a mindset he believes in.
"Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable," Levin said. "Coach Osborne spoke at our All Student-Athlete Meeting this fall, and what he said just resonated with everyone. He has such a presence and an energy about him that's very hard to describe. It doesn't take long, though, for you to understand he's a person who's interested in just about every person around him and everybody's well being.
"He believes we all have a responsibility above and beyond our athletic life here," Levin said. "He absolutely believes that we have an opportunity to serve and to touch other peoples' lives. And he's right about how that will stick much longer than anything we ever accomplish in our athletic endeavors."
Make no mistake. Osborne believes in success in athletics, academics and life. "He just doesn't want us to lose sight of the people around us," Levin said. "He believes in service and says it's not about what people can do for us. It's what we can do for them."
Fortunately, Levin learned that same philosophy from his own father, Irving. "My dad has always influenced me to give back," he said. "He believes that when you've been given a lot, you share your good fortune. When you give back, it's a sure-fire way to help somebody in need. I was taught that the more you give, the more you have."
And nothing drove that point home more than a Husker Heroes event that proved the true power of red ... for everyone involved.
Voices from Husker Nation
The Huskers won bigger on Sunday then they would ever win on a Saturday! Wow!! What an amazing opportunity for kids who love sports and look up to these players. And for kids who are affected for the rest of their lives. It just shows God's work among us and Nebraska Athletics! What these players do off of the field and the court is much more important then what they do on the field and court! God is amazing, and so is the University of Nebraska Athletics. I have a new reason to say: GO BIG RED!!! Susanna Hall, Lincoln, Nebraska
Every time I read one of these stories, it reinforces what differentiates Nebraska from most other schools. Going here and competing here, in the words of the athletic director in charge, is about much more than winning. It's about preparing yourself for life. That's why Husker fans loyally support their day-to-day heroes, win or lose. We know they give everything they have, on and off the field, the court, the mat, the diamond, whatever. Congratulations to every Nebraska student-athlete. You are true Husker Heroes. Jim Anderson, Omaha, Nebraska
Loved this story and what it means. Huskers care enough to give their very best to everyone around them, including those with special needs. There is no place like Nebraska. Molly Shannon, Chicago, Illinois